Economists tend to view land as another natural resource, like oil or timber. There is some truth to this, of course. In places where farming is still the main form of economic activity, whether your family is rich or poor can depend to a large degree on your access to land.
But land is never just about economics. Claims to land are wrapped in notions of identity and belonging, ownership and justice. Take someone's oil or timber away and they'll be angry with you, but you can probably placate them with the equivalent in cash. Take someone's land away and they'll never forgive you. "Most group political identities involve a very strong sense of relationship to the land," says political scientist Derek Hall of Canada's Wilfrid Laurier University (whose new book is entitled, simply, Land). "‘Relationship' isn't really even the word. People will say, ‘We're part of this land.' That can often make struggles over land particularly intense."
Even today, disagreements over land all too often end in bloodshed. Witness the massacre a few weeks ago in a corner of Kenya plagued by rival property claims -- or the murder of two Honduran peasants who were protesting illegal land grabs by military-backed oligarchs. The conflict between Japan and China over a few small uninhabited islands in the East China Sea even has experts worrying about the possibility of war.
People in the developed world sometimes have trouble appreciating the centrality of the problem. True, even countries with well-established property rights have their periodic controversies over eminent domain. Or they can find themselves confronting impassioned demands from indigenous peoples who claim land as recompense for colonialism.
And yet such controversies are minor compared with the predicament of a place like Burma, where two-thirds of the population live in the countryside and thus depend on the land for their livelihoods. The political liberalization that started there two years ago has been accompanied, unfortunately, by a rash of illegal land seizures (most likely orchestrated by cronies of the former military junta, who are eager to grab while the grabbing's good).
If the current government can't solve the problem, it will confront both an increasingly rebellious citizenry and a community of foreign investors unwilling to put money into a place where assurances of ownership don't seem to count for much. Failure to solve these problems could easily subvert the progress of Burma's nascent democracy. Fair access to land is a major precondition for a healthy polity. (The same is true of democratic India, where unequal distribution of land sustains another long-running insurgency by the Maoist Naxalites.)
Similar patterns repeat themselves around the world. Despite China's breakneck urbanization, the fate of the country's reform process depends to a crucial extent on whether the Communist Party can prevent local governments from conducting expropriations, which have been fueled by a system in which local governments finance their budgets through the sale of land. (Add rampant corruption, and you get a powerful set of incentives for an epidemic of evictions that drives much of China's simmering domestic unrest.) Hall notes that up to 60 million peasants have been displaced from their homes between 1990 and 2002. That adds up to quite a potential for discontent.